An Interview with World Vision Catalyst Steve Haas

We recently had the opportunity to talk to Steve Haas from World Vision. We learned a lot from him. Here are some uncommon truths to apply to life and business:

Significant challenges require significant vision.

Living a life that leans in the direction of joy isn’t just good for one’s health, it appears to be the only honest way to live.

Travel serves as a constant reminder that life is hard.

Humility is granted naturally when you let go of control.

Here’s the full interview:

Bulldog Drummond: What moment or experience in your life made you who you are today?
Steve Haas: Not to sound religious, but the start of a friendship with Jesus would be the moment of greatest influence. Up to that point, my life was basically good and on cruise control. I kicked enough personal operating system tires and made the choice to align my life with that of the life and teachings of Jesus. After deciding to follow Him, life became a challenging adventure with high speed turns, desert moments, mountain vistas, painful valleys, sea breezes and a friend to walk it with.

BD: Tell us about what you do for work.
SH: I serve as a “catalyst” for World Vision, a Christian humanitarian relief and development organization, operating in nearly 100 countries. Like the title implies, I relish putting things together to create greater value for those we seek to serve, the poor. Connections can come by way of external partnerships, foundations, individual donors or faith institutions. Often harder is getting independent internal “passionaries” to rally around a common purpose or program. I do a fair amount of external communications on issues we engage in and relish international and domestic travel with friends of our work, experiencing our impact in the field.

BD: What is the most innovative program World Vision is operating today?
SH: This is a difficult question in that World Vision is innovating at an aggressive rate. For nearly 70 years, World Vision has sought to understand the alleviation of poverty. This has meant ideation with few resources in some of the most vexing corners of the planet.

One of the current programs I am excited about is called “Thrive”, an initiative that targets small land-holder farmers to increase livelihoods. The key to the program is the impartation of an empowered worldview, as poverty is not only related to a lack of resources, but most crippling in the subsistence and dependency mindset that embeds itself often with the extreme poor. Central to Thrive training are key life principles that, when engaged, unleash creative freedom, character formation and a deep sense of personal responsibility. World Vision walks with the impoverished farmers and provides guidance and technological assistance as they embrace farming as a business and become capable of entrepreneurial wealth creation. The fact that farmers are seeing demonstrative impact and disproportionate farm yields, often in double digit percentages, creates its own viral affect, country and continent wide.

BD: How is innovation managed at World Vision?
SH: Like World Vision U.S., a number of World Vision International offices have an officer tasked with large or game-changing organizational plays. Although a small group may be tasked with larger scale program design and roll-out, everyone in the company is encouraged to innovate. So much of this work is relational, the connection of key ideas or people that return a multiple of their initial investment of time, money or talent. Often, the keys to these innovations have been around for some time, simply awaiting discovery and use in new ways. In the event a compelling business case can be made for change, things move rather fast around here.

BD: World Vision is one of the most successful philanthropic organizations in the last 70 years. What do you do differently that has helped World Vision achieve this?
SH: I think we do a number of things well. The disorienting nature of poverty alleviation work is that the global challenges we face are often of such magnitude and complexity that they overwhelm people seeking to engage. The title of the organization can serve as an example of the vastness of the vision, and that’s why it is called World Vision. 70 years later, our vision for what we can accomplish continues to be disproportionate to what our resources are, creating a hunger to invite others to come alongside us. Significant challenges require significant vision and greater planning, and World Vision is never afraid to step up. Our donors expect that.

Second, World Vision does a great job of breaking down complex international issues into relatable and actionable stories and programs. Our focus has always been on children, and this attention can be shared by everyone.

Third, World Vision offers an integrated solution to poverty. Our experience is that to raise a community to self-sufficiency, there are a number of critical success factors that have to be simultaneously in play. Clean water, sanitation and hygiene, education, health, jobs, food security and child protection must all be operational if a community is to sustain itself. Our donors experience complexity in building a family or business and don’t expect any difference when selecting charity partners impacting impoverished communities.

BD: What is most important to World Vision when hiring new people? Why?
SH: Obviously, in an organization of our breadth worldwide, looking for subject matter experts in various divisional responsibilities (program officers, accountants, project managers, developers, et al) is a given. The intangibles that this question speaks to has more to do with a person’s attitude than aptitude.

As a faith-based organization, we are driven to what we do based on a common faith commitment. This isn’t to say there is complete agreement theologically, as there are over 50 denominations represented in our U.S. offices alone. However, we do look for persons that affirm core faith tenants. Furthermore, so much of what World Vision does is in collaboration with others, whether internally or with our outside partners. Therefore, a person with a high emotional quotient is a priority. Due to the speed and changing nature of our work, a deep desire to continuously learning is critical.

BD: Tell us about a time an employee amazed you.
SH: World Vision has been significantly involved with the care of millions of South Sudanese escaping the violence of their civil war as they spill over into collar countries like Uganda. These are people barely above subsistence life, highly transitory and in crowded living conditions easily deduced by the primitive housing in the teeming displacement settlements. The crowded lodges where they are sandwiched in are little more than tube tents in some cases (plastic sheeting held up by a rope between trees/sticks). If you were on our tour of this refugee community, we could point out the humble tents for World Vision staff there to respond to this crisis. The tents you would see are no different than those of the refugees they are serving. Their arrangements have changed little since they first began responding to these broken people over the last two to three years. They will probably remain that way for the duration of the conflict.

No one would have to tell you that the refugees see our staff as fellow sufferers with them, while at the same time bearers of hope in the midst of significant personal loss and incomprehensible heartache.

BD: Can you tell us how you inspire people to be their best?
SH: Although highly competitive by nature, I love to see other people own their own process and achieve a sense of personal accomplishment. This means I need to bring my best self but constantly be on the lookout for ways that allows others to shine. I tend to have a vision about something to be accomplished. I help others see facets or the vision in its entirety and their role within an activity that moves us in its direction. Appropriate encouragement and resourcing for these leaders are significant elements in moving them toward success. By transferring accomplishment in this way, I am eventually permitted to walk away from a project as it is now in the able hands of someone else and I can go attach myself to something else.

BD: How has World Vision impacted your life personally?
SH: Frederick Buechner once stated that, “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and world’s deep hunger meet.” Repeatedly, I have found that place at World Vision. In my nearly 20 years here, I have experienced some of the most agonizing episodes of human suffering and depravity–scenes that have embedded themselves in my heart and mind in ways that even now I find difficulty processing. The cruelty of mankind finds little equal in the wide expanse of God’s creation. At the same time, and often juxtaposed to episodes of deep darkness, I have experienced joy and hope in ways that continue to astound and delight. My love for God and His creation has deepened, my empathy for others as well. I am no longer amazed at what can happen when a small group of passionate people decide to live and love boldly for others.

BD: Tell us something about World Vision that isn’t commonly known.

  • World Vision is the largest provider of clean water in the developing world, delivering clean water to a person every 10 seconds.
  • Last year, 91% of the severely malnourished children we treated made a full recovery.
  • Every 30 seconds, a family gets water, a hungry child is fed, a family receives the tools to overcome poverty.
  • Together, we’ve impacted the lives of over 200 million vulnerable children by tackling the root causes of poverty.
  • Because of our community-focused solutions, for every child World Vision helps, four more children benefit, too.

BD: World Vision spreads a lot of joy, can you tell us about one of your favorite memories?
SH: In 2012, some WV colleagues and I partnered with one of the largest student conferences in the nation, assembling over 32,000 AIDS Caregiver Kits for African volunteer home-based providers. Recipients of the kits were selfless village members who compassionately provide care and hospice outreach to as many as 15 families, affected or infected by HIV and AIDS. The kit was our effort to give them both a knapsack of necessary medicinal and therapeutic aids and encouragement in what is often thankless and exhaustive work. The kit engaged over 18,000 excited college students and efficiently corralled these critical items of essential medical items in less than two hours. Some students, as a result of this assembly line experience, told us they were changing their majors to more people-serving occupations as a result. Numerous organizers said, emphatically, this was their proudest moment in conference history. 

BD: We hear you’re a part-time professional joke-teller–can you share a joke with us?
SH: I love to laugh with people and love what happens when people are enjoying each other and experiencing the unexpected together. Like tears, laughter is also universal. So much of my life experience has been around people whose lives have been turned upside down by tragic circumstances. My travels serve as constant reminders that life is hard. At the same time, life is filled with whimsy, invitations to spontaneous fun, childlike play if we allow it to happen or are willing to introduce it to others.

Prank phone calls, shaving my head for a cancer survivor undergoing radiation, staging crazy surprise events are a reminder, as the Psalmist (30) says, “weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Living a life that leans in the direction of joy isn’t just good for one’s health, it appears to be the only honest way to live. Given our lack of control…might as well!

BD: What does joy mean to you? How do you find or cultivate it daily?
SH: For me, joy is that state of being that comes from having given up my right to being “ruler of the world.” With the decision comes a certain release of tension and anxiety that this self-imposed office creates. Joy for me isn’t a goal, in the same way that humility is impossible as a pursuit (you eventually find yourself arrogantly smug that you’re deemed humble, thus defeating the purpose).

A literary mentor, C.S. Lewis, stated that joy is a desire that owes its character to an object. Joy is the result of another commitment or action, that it points to something else. For me, joy points to a God who loves to lavish good things on his children, reconcile relationships, rescue and restore broken things. I find the deeper I go within this central relationship, the greater the intensity of joy I experience. By the way, the same goes for humility. It’s granted naturally when I let go of my control on everything and obey the Jesus mandate to love.


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